THE SELECTED WORKS OF MAHATMA GANDHI > Vol. II - SATYAGRAHA IN SOUTH AFRICA > Crossing The Border
43. Crossing The Border
We have now arrived at the beginning of November 1913. But before we proceed, it will be well to take note of two events. But before we proceed, it will be well to take note of two events. Bai Fatma Mehtab of Durban could no longer be at peace when the Tamilian sisters received sentences of imprisonment in Newcastle. She therefore left for Volksrust to court arrest along with her mother Hanifabai and seven years old son. Mother and daughter were arrested but the Government declined to arrest the boy. Fatma Bai was called upon to give her finger impressions at the charge office but she fearlessly refused to submit to the indignity. Eventually she and her mother were sent to prison for three months (October 13, 1913).
The labourers’ strike was in full swing at this time. Men as well as women were on the move between the mining district and Charlestown. Of these, there were two women with their little once one of whom died of exposure on the march. The other fell from the arms of its mother while she was crossing a spruit and was drowned. But the brave mothers refused to be dejected and continued their march. One of them said, ‘We must not pine for the dead who will not come back to us for all our sorrow. It is the living for whom we must work. I have often among the poor come across such instance of quite heroism, sterling faith and saving knowledge.
The men and women in Charlestown held to their difficult post of duty in such a stoical spirit. For it was no mission of peace that took us to that border village. If anyone wanted peace, he had to search for it within. Outwardly, the words there is no peace here were placarded everywhere, as it were. But it is in the midst of such storm that a devotee like Mirabai takes the cup of poison to her lips with cheerful equanimity, that Socrates quietly embraces death in his dark and solitary cell and initiates his friends and us into the mysterious doctrine that he who seeks peace must look for it within himself.
With such ineffable peace brooding over them the Satyagrahis were living in their camp, careless of what the morrow would bring.
I wrote to the Government, that we did not propose to enter the Transvaal with a view to domicile, but as an effective protest against the minister’s breach of pledge and as a pure demonstration of our distress at the loss of our self-respect. Government would be relieving us of all anxiety if they were good enough to arrest us where we then were, that is in Charlestown. Btu if they did not arrest us, and if any of us surreptitiously entered the Transvaal, the responsibility would not be ours. There was no secrecy about our movement. None of us had a personal axe to grind. We would not like it if any of us secretly entered the Transvaal. But we could not hold ourselves responsible for the acts of any as we had to deal with thousands of unknown men and as we could not command any other sanction but that of love. Finally, I assured the Government that if they repealed the three-pound tax, the strike would be called off and the indentured labourers would return to work, as we would not ask them to join the general struggle directed against the rest of our grievances.
The position therefore was quite uncertain, and there was no knowing when the Government would arrest us. But at a crisis like this we could not await the reply of the government for a number of days, but only for one or two returns of the post. We therefore decided to leave Charlestown and enter the Transvaal at once if the Government did not put us under arrest. If we are not arrested on the way, the ‘army of peace’ was the march twenty to twenty-four miles a day for eight days together, with a view to reach Tolstoy Farm, and to stop there till the struggle was over and in the meanwhile to maintain themselves by working the Farm. Mr. Kallenbach had made all the necessary arrangements. The idea was to construct mud huts with the help of the pilgrims themselves. So long as the huts were under construction, the old and the infirm should be accommodated in old and infirm should be accommodated in small tents, the able-bodied camping in the open. The only difficulty was, the rains were now about to set in, rained. But Mr. a shelter over his head while it rained. But Mr. Kallenbach was courageously confident of solving it somehow or other.
We also made other preparations for the march. The good Dr. Briscoe improvised a small medical chest for us, and gave us some instruments which even a layman like myself could handle. The chest was to be carried by hand as there was to be no conveyance with the pilgrims. We therefore carried with us the least possible quantity of medicines, which would not enable us to treat even a hundred persons at the same time. But that did not matter as we proposed to encamp every day near some village, where we hoped to get the drugs of which we ran short, and as we were not taking with us any of the patients or disabled persons whom we had arranged to leave in the villages en route.
Bread and sugar constituted our role ration, but how was a supply of bread to be ensured on the eight days march? The bread must be distributed to the pilgrims every day and we could not hold any of it in stock. The only solution of this problem was, that someone should supply us with bread at each stage. But who would be our provider? There were no Indian bakers at all. Again there could not be found a baker in each of the villages, which usually depended upon the cities for their supply of bread. Bread therefore must be supplied by some baker and sent by rail to the appointed station. Volksrust was about double the size of Charlestown, and a large European bakery there willingly contracted to supply bread at each place. The baker did not take advantage of our awkward plight to charge us higher than the market rates and supplied bread made of excellent flour. He sent it in time by rail, and the railway officials, also Europeans, not only honestly delivered it to us, but they look good care of it in transit and gave us, but they took good care of it in transit and gave us some special facilities. They knew that we harbored no enmity in our hearts, intended no harm to any living soul and sought redress only through self-suffering. The atmosphere around us was thus purified and continued to be pure. The feeling of love which is dormant though present in all mankind was roused into activity. Everyone realized that we are all brothers whether we are ourselves Christians, Jews, Hindus, Musalmans or anything else.
When all the preparations for the march were completed, I made one more effort to achieve a settlement. I had already sent letters and telegrams. I now decided to phone even at the risk of my overtures being answered by an insult. From Charlestown I phoned to General Smuts in Pretoria. I called his secretary and said: ‘Tell General Smuts that I am fully prepared for the march. The Europeans in Volksrust are excited and perhaps likely to violate even the safety of our lives. They have certainly held out such a threat. I am sure that even the General would not wish any such untoward event to happen. If he promises to abolish the three-pound tax, I will stop the march, as it will not break the law merely for the sale of breaking it but I am driven to it by inexorable necessity. Will not the General accede to such a small request?’ I received this reply within half a minute: ‘General Smuts will have nothing to do with you. You may do just as you please.’ With this the message closed.
I had fully expected this result, though I was not prepared for the curtness of the reply. I hoped for a civil answer, as my political relations with the General since the organization of Satyagraha had now subsisted for six years. But as I would not be elated by his courtesy, I did not weaken in the face of his incivility. The straight and narrow path I had to tread was clear before me. The next day (November 6, 1913) at the appointed stroke of the hour (6-30) we offered prayers and commenced the march in the name of God. The pilgrim band was composed of 2,037 men, 127 women and 57 children.